One in four Americans confesses to not reading a book in the last year. That’s up from one in five in the Pew survey taken just five years ago. In a Gallup poll from 1978, a year that began with Ted Nugent autographing an arm with a Bowie knife at a fan’s request and ended with Americans flooding movie theaters to watch Every Which Way But Loose, fewer than one in twelve copped to not reading a book.
It’s later than you think.
Anecdotal evidence of Americans devolving into foppish versions of Huck Finn’s father increasingly confront. Unlike the redneck paterfamilias, the new enemies of book learnin’ imagine themselves as too cutting edge for such antiquated pursuits. Stupid is the new smart.
The page retreated as screens advanced.
In the late 1990s, while on liberty for the Marines, a recently printed guide to the used bookstores of San Diego guided my weary legs to empty storefronts and shuttered shops. A decade later, reading a book in a local dive led to a large inebriated woman (astounded by my barroom pastime) interrupting me mid-sentence to earnestly exclaim, “Oh my God, you should be like president or something.” On the bus, train, and plane people who once read books, magazines, and newspapers now play with gadgets.
Wasting time increasingly dominates our leisure time.
The remaining real estate occupied by books in the bookstores that remain shrinks. Sometime after Borders closed, Barnes and Noble, wisely and sadly, morphed into a gift shop/coffee shop selling board games, toys, scones, and, yes, hardbacks and paperbacks.
If books increasingly strike barflies and bus riders as curios, then surely a safe space exists for them in schools, right? The for-profit Carrington College rationalized replacing texts with iPads by describing books as “so last year!” For $52,000 a year, boarders at the Cushing Academy get a library with massive televisions and cappuccino machines. The school boasts on its website, “The Cushing Academy library replaced printed books with electronic sources to embrace the digital future.” In more mainstream preparatory and collegiate institutions where texts prevail, narrow job training and service learning increasingly crowd out broad reading of what Matthew Arnold called “the best which has been thought and said.”
Libraries, where “shhh!” once hit the ears as the loudest sound, grow intrusively noisy. Mission creep sees the public library replacing Blockbuster as the leading lender of movies, Napster as the preferred venue cheapskate music lovers go to rip off songs, the homeless shelter for the homeless turned out during daylight hours, and even the video arcade in providing games to patrons. The American Library Association’s International Games Day on November 19 features a Minecraft Hunger Games tournament and highlights a “battle map” for Pokemon Go, which, librarians reason, provides a “transmedia storytelling experience” and allows the local branch to foster “multimodal literacy.”
Barbara Gordon does not approve — and neither does Batgirl.
One needn’t identify as a bookworm to recognize that we value the printed word less the less we read it. Charity book sales, which along with the Internet, drive used bookstores out of business, peddle donated books for pennies on the dollar. In Northampton, the library allowed me to fill any box (I chose a cartoonishly large one) with books for just $10. For less than thirty cents a title, I picked up Karl Evanzz’s excellent The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad, David Lebedoff’s interesting but unconvincing The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War, and thirty some odd books that I someday might get around to reading. My hometown library simply gives away books on two fully stocked carts. Freebies grabbed by your correspondent for novelty sake offer evidence — memoirs by Bill Cosby, Larry King, and Judge Wapner, and an illustrated children’s biography of Louis Farrakhan — that a past golden age of literacy existed more in our memories than in reality. The books loaned rather than given away sometimes further buttress this last point. Checking out an early edition of William James’s Pragmatism, one of the most famous books of the 20th century, from Georgetown University’s library revealed scores of uncut pages proving that a century-old volume sat on the shelf unread at a leading institution of higher learning long before the advent of television, the Internet, or even International Games Day.
Still, evidence encountered while researching Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America suggests that books, especially serious titles, once played a more central role in our civilization. Mortimer Adler helped orchestrate a campaign that sold over a million copies of the 54-volume Great Books of the Western World. Could Joe Girard even give a million sets away today? Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy occupied a place on the New York Times annual top-ten bestseller list for four of the five years after its 1926 release. What’s number one on the current Times hardcover nonfiction list? Amy Schumer’s Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.
Bibliophiles feel more than a bit like Burgess Meredith’s Henry Bemis in the classic Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last.” Books remain cheap and plentiful as people to talk with about them become scarce. It’s enough to make a man write a book about it — or not.